In This Article Literature of the British Caribbean

  • Introduction
  • Anthologies
  • Bibliographies
  • Journals
  • The Imagined Caribbean
  • Slavery, Race, and Empire
  • Gender and Sexuality
  • From Early to Modern Caribbean Literature

Atlantic History Literature of the British Caribbean
by
Tim Watson
  • LAST REVIEWED: 15 June 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 January 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199730414-0117

Introduction

Until recently, Caribbean literature in English before 1850 has received relatively little attention from critics and historians of British and American literature—and even from critics of 20th- and 21st-century Caribbean literature, who have tended to reject an affiliation with a set of texts that, for the most part, were written by Creole (Caribbean-born or resident) whites who either took slavery for granted or positively endorsed it. (In this bibliography, “Caribbean literature” refers to writing produced by authors with first-hand, nontrivial experience of the Caribbean, including nonfictional works that evince an interest in language use and rhetorical form.) Whether their relationship to the slave systems of the Caribbean precluded those writers from producing esthetically interesting works of literature, or whether these literary texts have been overlooked by later critics because those Caribbean authors now appear to have been on the wrong side of history, are questions for scholars and students to consider. In the last twenty years, however, as the study of literature in general has come to emphasize historical, rather than formal or esthetic, questions, these early Caribbean texts have generated more interest; critics no longer have to make evaluative esthetic claims for them but can make powerful claims for their richness in historically ambiguous, contradictory figures and themes that embed and represent some of the most important historical processes of the modern world: empire, slavery, race, sexuality, natural history and the environment, etc. These works have also shown themselves to be important historical and cultural documents—despite their tendentious origins—for the recovery of the experiences and voices of those at the bottom of the power structure of the colonial Caribbean, who left few archival documents and records to which the historian might otherwise turn. The shift away from national frameworks for literary study in general has also drawn early Caribbean literature into the ambit of research projects that would previously have been exclusively either “British” or “American.” At the same time, however, this transnational turn has militated against the development of a specifically Caribbean literary history before 1850. The Early Caribbean Society is beginning the process of remedying this and plans to publish a general literary history of the early English-speaking Caribbean.

Anthologies

As a sign of increasing interest in the literature of the British Caribbean in the period of slavery and immediately afterward, there are now two excellent general anthologies available, suitable for classroom use: Krise 1999 and Williamson 2008. D’Costa and Lalla 1989 usefully focuses on Jamaica and on Jamaican Creole language use. The eight volumes of Kitson and Lee 1999 represent a landmark in the study of abolition and Romanticism, a sign of how quickly and extensively the issues of slavery and empire have reconfigured the scholarship on the British Romantic period (see also Slavery, Race, and Empire). Felsenstein 1999 collects the key texts of a quintessential narrative of the Caribbean in the period before emancipation, the story of Inkle, a young English merchant, and Yarico, a beautiful, virtuous Native American (in some versions, black) woman who rescues Inkle but is sold by him into slavery in Barbados. (This allegorical tale still reverberates in the region today, as Beryl Gilroy’s 1996 novel Inkle and Yarico shows.) Basker 2005 is the definitive anthology of 17th- and 18th-century poetry in English on the subject of slavery. Burnett 1986 is an early example of the more recent critical tendency to establish continuity between the pre-1850 literature of the Caribbean and the astounding flourishing of Caribbean poetry, fiction, and drama after 1950 (see also From Early to Modern Caribbean Literature).

  • Basker, James G., ed. Amazing Grace: An Anthology of Poems about Slavery, 1660–1810. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2005.

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    Meticulously edited, wide-ranging anthology of slavery poems, many set in the Caribbean or written by Creole Caribbean writers (e.g., Bryan Edwards). Includes the Caribbean poems of Philip Freneau, the major poet of the American Revolution (see Literary Genres: Poetry). Especially strong in 18th-century British poetry of slavery.

  • Burnett, Paula, ed. The Penguin Book of Caribbean Verse in English. Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin, 1986.

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    Divided into “The Oral Tradition” and “The Literary Tradition,” the book gives a limited amount of space at the beginning of each section to pre-Emancipation poetry. Especially valuable are the early slave songs and ballads Burnett includes, mostly from white travelers’ and historians’ accounts.

  • D’Costa, Jean, and Barbara Lalla, eds. Voices in Exile: Jamaican Texts of the 18th and 19th Centuries. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1989.

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    Groundbreaking recovery of early Jamaican Creole language and folk culture from literary and nonliterary texts, some relatively well-known such as Matthew Lewis, Cynric Williams, and Tom Cringle’s Log, but others obscure, such as the verse/caricature “De Black Man’s Lub Song” from the 1830s and Henry Murray’s Manners and Customs of the Country a Generation Ago (1877).

  • Felsenstein, Frank, ed. English Trader, Indian Maid: Representing Gender, Race, and Slavery in the New World: An Inkle and Yarico Reader. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999.

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    Comprehensive anthology, with an excellent introduction, of British, American, and Caribbean versions of the Inkle and Yarico story. Extracts from Ligon’s History of Barbados (1657), source text for the story; full text of George Colman’s popular comic opera Inkle and Yarico (1787).

  • Kitson, Peter J., and Debbie Lee, eds. Slavery, Abolition, and Emancipation: Writings in the British Romantic Period. 8 vols. London: Pickering & Chatto, 1999.

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    Large collection of primary texts from the late 18th and early 19th centuries, focused on British responses to slavery and containing valuable material on and from the Caribbean. Original texts reproduced in facsimile form; explanatory notes and useful introductions to each volume by leading scholars. Particularly useful are Volume 1, Black Writers, and Volumes 4, 5, and 6 on verse, drama, and fiction, respectively.

  • Krise, Thomas W., ed. Caribbeana: An Anthology of English Literature of the West Indies, 1657–1777. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999.

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    Includes early representations of black voices (whether authentic or ghostwritten by white authors), “A Speech Made by a Black of Guardaloupe” (1709) and “The Speech of Moses Bon Sàam” (1735); full text of Grainger’s The Sugar-Cane (1764); extracts from Ligon’s History of Barbados (1657) and Thomas Tryon’s dialogue Friendly Advice to the Gentlemen-Planters of the East and West Indies (1684). Excellent introduction and notes.

  • Williamson, Karina, ed. Contrary Voices: Representations of West Indian Slavery, 1657–1834. Kingston, Jamaica: University of the West Indies Press, 2008.

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    Covers longer period, many more authors than Krise 1999; mostly shorter excerpts. First two sections organized chronologically (1657–1807; 1807–1834), then thematic sections on “Resistance and Rebellion,” “On the Haitian Revolution,” and “Songs.” Excerpts from Richard Ligon, Hans Sloane, Edward Long, Jamaica: A Poem, Olaudah Equiano, Bryan Edwards, James Grainger, John Gabriel Stedman, Matthew Lewis, Marly, Mary Prince, Aphra Behn, M. J. Chapman, and many others.

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